Grove: Recent Penguins Woes Come Down To Lack Of Focus

And it's up to the players, not Mike Sullivan to fix it

Bob Grove
February 08, 2019 - 9:57 am

© Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH (93.7 The Fan) - When it comes to the struggling Penguins, losers of seven of their last 10 games after Thursday’s overtime defeat in Florida, there’s lots of talk right now about personnel.

What will the addition of Nick Bjugstad give them that they haven’t had? Is he a winger or a centerman? Can Jarod McCann make a real difference on the bottom six? Which defenseman leaves the lineup when Justin Schultz returns, possibly as early as Saturday in Tampa? Are they serious about splitting up Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin? Is Teddy Blueger here to stay? Can Evgeni Malkin regain his goal-scoring touch when he returns from injury?

All this is understandable, given what Jim Rutherford has been doing, the approach of the NHL trade deadline and the necessity of Mike Sullivan trying to work new players into a lineup that is missing regulars. But it’s also a bit misplaced.

This slump isn’t really about who’s playing with who, who’s missing from the lineup, who doesn’t deserve to be playing or how Sullivan can “get the Penguins going” by stopping the lineup merry-go-round at exactly the right place. The Penguins sit in the final Eastern Conference wild card spot today because they’ve lost their focus.

A month ago they won 13 of 16 games. As a group, the attention to detail, the determination, the execution that made that run possible is now only occasionally visible. They lack that certain spark, that certain emotional pitch, that was integral to those results.

Too many routine plays are not being made; too many simple mistakes are. Too many puck battles are being lost; too many good shots are being passed up. It should be little consolation that this portion of the schedule can be a notorious slog for many teams; witness the recent slumps in Washington (lost eight of nine), Vegas (lost six of eight), Toronto (lost five of seven) and Tampa Bay (lost four of seven heading into Saturday night).

Too many times recently, the Penguins have kind of flat-lined through periods and even games. That’s not to say there’s no effort, but that the effort start-to-finish isn’t the kind that brings results in this league. And this is now feeding on itself, because this slump has affected their confidence – Sullivan likes to call it swagger. That was on full display Thursday night when the Penguins wasted a five-on-three power play and passed up numerous great scoring chances in overtime before botching the coverage on the winning goal.

We all know the guys on this team that continue to carry more than their portion of the weight, but as a group of 20 players on many nights now, the Penguins seem to be waiting around for someone else to do something.

Coming off a poor effort in a home shutout to Carolina Tuesday, Pittsburgh came out Thursday and put up all of six shots in the opening period while falling behind the mediocre Panthers. Not exactly the response he wanted, but very similar to the largely emotion-free performance Sullivan got against the Hurricanes. Or against the Devils in the first game after the All-Star break. Or in Los Angeles during the five-game West Coast trip where this whole epidemic started.

The return of Malkin and Schultz will help. The struggling special teams will regain their footing. The new players will be assimilated. But in the meantime, the Penguins have to rediscover that spark, that attitude the sets the stage for 60-minute performances. It’s up to them, not Sullivan, to find it.

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